Autism and Mainstream Public Education
American families with children with autism received a major boost in 1997 with the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) which was designed in part to help make sure that children with autism would have government supported access to special education opportunities. Though it had been long known that access to special education and proper treatment during childhood could help children with autism to break out of their isolation, learn how to communicate their needs, and become capable of participating in society in limited ways, access to such educational and treatment opportunities were more limited prior to the act because of their great expense. IDEA mandated public educational systems to treat autism as a disability and to provide appropriate care and educational opportunities. In response to IDEA, schools created Individual Education Plans (IEPs) for children with autism in their districts, and began to provide autism support classes and associated special education resources. Though only people with mild autism may ultimately learn to live independently and become self-supporting, very few people with autism are so profoundly unreachable today that they require institutionalization.
Thanks to IDEA and similar legislation, many public school districts in the United States are now mainstreaming children with autism into the regular classroom where this is appropriate. School-aged children with Asperger's Syndrome tend to fair well in regular classroom settings. Children with more severe delays in communication skills may require an autism support classroom. Each case is unique. Each child's placement depends on his needs and the school district's ability to provide an environment conducive to learning.
Many children with autism function remarkably well in school settings. They thrive in structured environments. Once children learn their school routine, they navigate effortlessly through the school day. Making the initial transition into the school setting can be challenging, however, so the family and school may decide to use wraparound services to help children become comfortable and familiar with their classroom without interfering with instruction. Some schools have classroom aides who function as a one-on-one guide for children with autism.
Each child's IEP functions as a treatment plan and legal document outlining specific educational goals for the child. IEPs are designed by an educational institution in collaboration with the child's parents, teacher and special education director. Parents may also include the child's physician or an advocate. IEPs define services that the child will require in order to reach his or her educational goals. They also specify methods through which each child's progress towards educational goals will be assessed.
Even with special accommodations in place, not all children with autism are capable of attending public school. Some seventy percent of children with autism also either meet criteria for a separate but coexisting diagnosis of mental retardation, or are too behaviorally disturbed to be mainstreamed. Such children are typically educated within each community's mental retardation/developmental disorders (MR/DD) program